Devolution of the Word “Meme”


By Gene Wilburn

Photo by Peter Lam CH on Unsplash

Sure, you know what a meme is. It’s a picture with words, usually humorous, sometimes acerbic. You see dozens of them each day if you’re on social media. You probably share really funny ones with friends. And, as you’ve seen, there are hundreds of cat memes floating around the Internet.

But did you know that the word meme has strayed from its intended meaning?

Meme is not an old word. It is a word coined by Richard Dawkins in 1975 in his landmark book on biology, The Selfish Gene. It is a foreshortening of the Greek word mimēma ‘that which is imitated.’ It was intended to signify ideas that spread through a population in the manner of a gene, though faster.

Think of ideas that have swept through populations: philosophical or religious beliefs, the idea of a renaissance, the concept of an age of reason, to highlight a few. On the societal side, think of political phrases like “lock her up” and “#metoo” that have spread far and wide.

In an interview with Newsbeat, Dawkins admitted that “I’m not going to use the term internet meme to refer to a picture with writing on it.” For Dawkins, memes are “ideas that spread from brain to brain — a bit like genes, they are replicated many times.”

And so it is that while gaining a popular new word for pictures with captions (now its primary meaning in dictionaries), we’ve mostly lost an intellectually useful word to explain how ideas spread.

One thing linguists always tell us: language is in a continual state of change. Words change meaning, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. It’s the way language works. We may rue the change in the meaning of meme but it’s now a done deal.

As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. often wrote, “And so it goes.”


Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT specialist.

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